Ancient Mayan Agriculture

Agriculture was one of the most important activities of the mayan civilization. The study of Maya agricultural life is based on existing methods, archaeological finds, botanical and geographical observations, and sixteenth-century sources, many of which are quite detailed, but tell of customs in a less populous time.

mayan agriculture


Plant cultivation consisted in the area which is current day Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras and surrounding regions. One of the main crops was maize. Irrigation began to be used and populations came around religious center where pyramids and temples were built. The main form of crop productions is known as Slash and Burn.

The Mayans were fond of multi-cropping, the process of planting and harvesting the same area of land various times within the same year. And although this greatly depleted the fertility of these lands, the practice of terracing and intensive farming techniques helped the Mayans meet the demand for food.

mayan farming

Food Sources / Crops

The major food sources were maize, beans, chili, squash, tomatoes, avocado, pumpkin, and cacao. They also had fruit orchards and vegetable gardens. Chocolate was the favourite drink of the upper classes. Cacao beans, as well as pieces of copper, were a common medium of exchange. Very little meat was eaten, except at ceremonial feasts, although the Maya were expert hunters and fishers.

Corn was the basis of the Maya. The Mayan creation story even depicts the corn god as the father of creation; it was lucky for the Maya that their most valuable crop was also one of the most plentiful. Corn has many uses besides the traditional one. The Mayas preserved the corn in storage bins; they kept it in fine underground granaries called chultunes.

mayan agriculture

Milpa System

The "milpa" system was used because of fast rotation in virgin growing locations. Meaning no bugs or weeds -- meaning no pesticides or herbicides required. A Maya farmer tried to locate his milpa as close as possible to the wells. As new fields were needed, there was a tendency for the Maya farmer to move farther and farther from a given center.

This in time doubtless loosened his connection with the city-state. Agricultural decentralization could well have been one of the factors which loosened the social structure of the Old Empire and contributed to the disintegration of cities.

Ancient Mayan civilization agriculture

The Maya cultivated much besides maize. In the same cornfield, using the maize stalk for support, the farmers planted beans; on the ground, squash and pumpkins grew. Chili peppers were grown at the edge of the fields or in the houses as an ornamental shrub. In separate fields in the warmer areas the Mayas grew the pale sweet potato.

In the 1970s, researchers began characterizing the remains of elaborate irrigation canals found in wetland areas. But it has not been clear how widespread these canals were or whether the use of wetlands for farming was an important part of the Maya agricultural system.


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